32. Untying the Six Knots – Shurangama Sutra – By Master Shen Yen

Master Shen Yen
  1. Untying the Six Knots

December 13, 1992

Today, we will continue our talks on the Shurangama Sutra:

The Buddha said, “Ananda, tell me now if the six knots of this cloth can be untied simultaneously.”

Ananda replied: “No, World Honored One, they cannot because they were originally tied one after the other and should be untied in the same order. Although they are in the same piece of cloth, they were not tied simultaneously; how can they now be untied all at once?”


The Buddha said: “Your six organs should be disengaged in the same way. When you begin to disentangle them, you will realize that the ego is void. When this voidness is perfectly clear, you will realize that all dharmas  are void. When you are disengaged from dharmas the voidness (of ego and dharmas) will vanish. This is called the Patient Endurance of the Uncreate achieved by means of Samadhi in the Bodhisattva Stage.”


Here Buddha continues to talk about the six knots, representing the six sense organs of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. He is referring to six knots which he tied in a scarf given to him by the Yama king as a way of demonstrating a point. Earlier, Buddha said, “…when the six knots are untied, the one also vanishes.” “The one” is mind. When the six knots are untied, the mind, and our vexations, will vanish. We must continue talking about the six knots because our vexations are still with us. As long as we have vexations, we will be talking about these knots.

The Buddha says that the six sense organs cannot be disengaged simultaneously. There are two key phrases in the third paragraph: “the ego is void” and “all dharmas are void.” The second term can be more literally translated as “the liberation of dharmas,” or “liberation from dharmas.” When a person realizes the voidness of both ego and dharmas, he is a Bodhisattva who has attained the position of the Patience Endurance of the Uncreate, also called the Endurance of the Non-Arising.

What is meant by “the ego is void”? The Chinese character used here can also be understood to mean that the person or the individual is void. An individual is made up of what we call the five skandhas, or aggregates. So long as an individual does not realize the voidness of the skandhas, he will continue to exist in the cycle of samsara. Samsara perpetuates itself by the twelve links of conditioned arising. On the other hand, if a person realizes the voidness of the five skandhas, they are no longer subject to the cycle of twelve links of conditioned arising. This is called the voidness of the person.

The voidness of the person is also called the voidness of arising. Arising and perishing are relative to each other. A person who has attained the voidness of the person realizes that the five skandhas are empty. Thus he realizes the truth of no-self. He transcends samsara, the cycle of birth and death, and enters nirvana. To transcend samsara is to become an Arhat. This is not considered the ultimate state for a Mahayana practitioner. An Arhat still has an attachment to birth and death in that he has an aversion to birth and death. He wants to leave it behind. So in this sense, the dharma of birth and death, the dharma of nirvana, and the dharma of arising and perishing are not yet empty for him. For him the dharma of arising, which refers to the cycle of birth and death, is empty. But the dharma of perishing, which refers to nirvana, is not yet empty because the Arhat still desires it.

We can see the steps that Buddha talks about as stages of development. First, he talks about the six sense organs, which are physical components of the body. By themselves they do not allow us to be aware of the self. That requires consciousness. But when a person attains the Arhat stage, he realizes that the self that is formed of the five skandhas is empty. That self does not have any real existence. With that understanding he also understands that the six sense organs, which are part of the self, have no real existence. The self that comes from the six sense organs and consciousness is not a real self.

Although an Arhat is no longer subject to the vexations of the cycle of birth and death, he still has what we call “habitual tendencies,” or “karmic tendencies.” He is also not free of fundamental ignorance, which is called “avidya” in Sanskrit. Because of habitual tendencies and fundamental ignorance, the Arhat has not attained completion.

Buddha said, “When this voidness is perfectly clear you will realize that all dharmas are void.” The Arhat has only attained the voidness of the individual, so the Arhat has not yet attained the full perfection of emptiness. He would like to stay in nirvana, so for him nirvana is not empty. Likewise, he has an aversion to birth and death, so his experience of the emptiness of birth and death is not thorough. It’s as if you said, “The Chan Center is a terrible place. I want to be free of it, so I will go across the street and never come back.” You cross the street, and you are free of the trouble and the evil of the Chan Center. However, as long as you dare not cross the street, and you hold on to the idea that the Chan Center is a demonic cave, you are still attached to it. The Chan Center is not empty for you, and you are not thoroughly free of it. The Arhat is like that, and both nirvana and birth and death are not thoroughly empty for him.

This realization that all dharmas are void is state of the Mahayana Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva realizes that not only the self that is formed of the five skandhas is empty, but the five skandhas themselves are also empty. The three realms, birth and death, in fact, all dharmas, are empty. If the cycle of birth and death is empty, then what can it do to me? So a Bodhisattva does not seek to depart from the cycle of birth and death, but he also is not deluded within the cycle of birth and death. This state is called the emptiness of both person and dharma, and it is the completion, or perfection, of emptiness. When one has realized the emptiness of dharmas, one is liberated from nirvana dharma as well as from samsara dharma.

Imagine once again that you see the Chan Center as a terrible place. Shifu is a bad guy, the monks are evil, and anyone who comes to the Center is in danger. Your first impulse is to leave as fast as possible. But if you know the Chan Center is evil and you run away from it, then it will continue to be evil. If you stay, you may be able to help improve it. If you know that the Center has this potential for evil, when you encounter problems they will not cause you vexations, because you are fully aware of the possible problems and vexations you may encounter here. When problems arise they will not be a surprise to you, or disturb your peacefulness. That is the meaning of the emptiness of dharmas.

Some people have bad habits, and others have strong preconceptions. When people with these characteristics get together, they can cause trouble. For example, if Jim has the habit of using profanity in every sentence, and David believes that using such words indicates anger or malice, there will be an argument. For Jim, profanity is a normal part of speech. If David can understand that, he will see that in this case profanity does not indicate anger or malice. Then Jim’s profanity will not disturb his peace. It will not cause vexations. If David does not understand that Jim considers profanity to be a normal and natural part of language, even before Jim opens his mouth, he will have the preconceived idea that Jim is going to be angry again. This is not correct understanding. When David has the proper understanding then even though the language may sound bad, he will not be affected. If David realizes the emptiness of the person and of the dharmas, he will not let Jim’s behavior vex him.

Once I knew someone who was quite nice, but he swore habitually. One day he was pleased with something his son did, and said, “Today, the son-of-a-bitch did pretty well.”

His son was quite pleased. Other people might find it strange that the father would say such a thing, but it was his way of expressing pleasure with his son. The son was very happy because he understood that that was the way his father praised people. The son didn’t even hear “son-of-a-bitch” as something negative. He just understood that his father was happy with him. In a sense, the son realized the emptiness of dharmas.

We should all try to learn to realize the emptiness of dharmas. When we experience individuals and situations, we should remember that both individuals and dharmas are empty.

In the Shurangama Sutra, one of the Buddha’s Arhat disciples was known for his bad temper. One day as he was crossing the Ganges River the water level rose so high his clothes were soaked. He scolded the river, and asked why the deity of the river wasn’t doing anything to prevent the river from rising. The deity was saddened by this, so he went to the Buddha and said, “The water rises, the water drops, and I have nothing to do with it. Yet your disciple blames me.”

The Buddha said to his disciple, “You shouldn’t have scolded the deity of the river. You should go and apologize to him.” So the disciple went to the river and said, “Hey, you lowly being, the other day I scolded you. I apologize.” He said the word “apologize,” but because of the way he addressed the river deity he was once again being rude. The river deity was doubly unhappy.

The deity did not see the emptiness of the person or the emptiness of dharmas. The disciple was an Arhat, so he saw the emptiness of the person, but he still had karmic tendencies, or karmic habits, which worsened his behavior. He had not realized the emptiness of all phenomena, of dharmas.

When does one realize the emptiness of dharmas? In the Mahayana tradition this happens when a Bodhisattva realizes the Dharma Body and sees the Dharma Nature. We use the terms, “Dharma Body” and “Dharma Nature,” but the Bodhisattva realizes that even the Dharma Body, itself, is empty. When a Bodhisattva realizes the Dharma Body he sees that the Dharma Body is empty. He sees that the Dharma Body is everywhere, universal. In other words, emptiness is universal. If emptiness is universal, it is not necessary for a person to run from this spot to that spot, because emptiness is everywhere. No matter where you are there need not be any vexations.

Now we come to the phrase, “the voidness will vanish.” This, again, expresses a higher level of understanding. First, the Buddha talks about the emptiness of the person, then about the emptiness of dharmas, and here Buddha refers to the state where both the emptiness of the person and the emptiness of dharmas are, themselves, realized as empty, as neither kind of emptiness arises.

We can understand this theoretically or conceptually, but experientially this is something that ordinary sentient beings cannot know. In fact, we can only know the earlier stages conceptually if we have not experienced them personally. Anybody who has read the Heart Sutra knows intellectually that the five skandhas are empty, and the self made of the five skandhas is also empty. All of these ideas can be very clear to us, provided that our own benefit and wellbeing are not at stake. As soon as our own gain or loss is at stake we see that we have not realized the emptiness of the individual.

If that is the case, what good does it do for us to listen to a talk on the sutras? Even though we cannot yet realize emptiness, at least we can emulate the behavior of Bodhisattvas. The sutras give us guidelines concerning what we should and should not do. When we face vexations and confusion, we should first realize that it is normal and natural.

Everyone has problems. Then we should remind ourselves that the Buddha said the self is empty. Whatever we encounter, whether it is good fortune or bad, we should accept with equanimity. Say to yourself, “I am a Buddhist and I have learned the Dharma. In this situation I should not experience strong attachment, nor should I be overly excited or overly sad.” This is a process of self-education. It allows us to open our minds and get rid of mental obstructions.

In Taiwan, I know a family in which every member has taken refuge in the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, thus expressing their faith in Buddhism. The husband has many problems. Even though he has become a Buddhist, he often does and says things that make other people unhappy. He stayed at Nung Chan Monastery in Taiwan for quite a few months, and I tried to help him change. Nothing worked, so I said to his wife, “I think he should go home. He has been in the Temple for quite a while, and the other people there suffer because of him.” His wife said, “He has caused the people in the monastery vexations, but only for a few months. I have been married to him for over thirty years, and have had to accept what he says and does for all that time.” It appears that this woman had realized the emptiness of the person and the emptiness of dharmas better than the residents of Nung Chan Monastery.

It is the wife’s practice to read the Sutra of the Earth Store Bodhisattva every day at home. She feels that she married such a difficult man because of her karma. If she divorced him, who would take care of him? Even the Temple doesn’t want him, so his wife stays with him to take care of him. This woman is a Bodhisattva.

If there are people with emotional or personality problems in your family, what can you do? It is best to be compassionate, like the woman I have been talking about. If we cannot be compassionate, we will allow difficult people to cause us pain, and we will not be able to do anything for them. If we can adopt a compassionate attitude we ourselves will suffer less, and we may be able to help the other person. If we can just accomplish this, then listening to a talk on the Shurangama Sutra will have been useful. You can see that both emptiness of the self and emptiness of dharmas are important in our daily lives.

When we can be compassionate to people who cause us problems we are being Bodhisattvas. There are many different levels of development for Bodhisattvas. When we first generate the Bodhisattva mind, the bodhicitta, we are at the beginning level. There are also Bodhisattvas who have attained the position of first bhumi or above, and have eliminated vexations. And there is the ultimate Bodhisattva, the Buddha. We beginning Bodhisattvas must learn from and emulate the Bodhisattvas who have attained the first bhumi or above. Such people are sages and saints.

Buddha says that when the voidness of ego and dharmas vanish, this is called the Patient Endurance of the Uncreate achieved by means of samadhi in the Bodhisattva Stage. The samadhi referred to here is the Shurangama Samadhi, or Great Samadhi. Earlier in this sutra, this samadhi is referred to by other names, such as Wondrous and Subtle Lotus, Diamond King Wonderful Enlightenment, and Samadhi as Illusion. “Samadhi” is used here in a way that is different from “stillness of the mind,” the original meaning of samadhi. In that state a practitioner will not break any precepts or have any vexations, but when he emerges from samadhi he will still be subject to vexations. If he has attained Arhatship he will be free of vexations, but he will still have karmic tendencies, which are the most subtle form of vexation, and fundamental ignorance.

The Shurangama Samadhi is different in that stillness of mind and wisdom are simultaneous. A person can function in the world in this kind of samadhi. He can give a talk on the Dharma in samadhi, or walk in samadhi. He can do anything and remain in samadhi. He is in accord with wisdom and free from vexation in all situations. That is Great Samadhi: stillness and wisdom simultaneously.

The phrase rendered as “Patient Endurance of the Uncreate” is difficult to translate. It can also mean, “The Endurance of Non-Arising,” or “The Wisdom of Non-Arising.” “Non­arising” or “uncreate” refers to the non-arising of vexation. This state is attained only by Bodhisattvas at the stage of the first bhumi or above. Bodhisattvas before the first bhumi are engaged in “the suppression of vexation.” Their vexations are not being eradicated or terminated yet. But once a person reaches the first bhumi he or she begins to terminate vexations. Even those vexations that have not been terminated will not manifest. They will remain suppressed.

The Bodhisattva who has attained the first bhumi or above will not let vexations rise up; this is because they have realized the emptiness of both person and dharmas. They have already realized emptiness, so every single thought is associated with emptiness. Every thought comes from emptiness, and returns to emptiness. For such a person, all dharmas neither arise nor perish.

This is the second sense in which we use the term “non­arising.” Initially, I explained that it refers to the non-arising of vexations. “Non-arising” also refers to a person in a state where all dharmas neither arise nor perish. So there are three kinds of emptiness: first, the emptiness of person; second, the emptiness of dharmas; and third, the emptiness of person as well as dharmas.

Question: I don’t really understand the distinctions between the three kinds of emptiness.

Shifu: A person who has experienced the emptiness of the self, the first emptiness, still wants to leave samsara. When you then experience the emptiness of dharmas, the second emptiness, you are willing to stay within samsara because you are not attached to it, and you do not perceive it as an obstruction. The experience of the emptiness of both the emptiness of self and dharmas, the third emptiness, keeps you from misunderstanding, thinking that you must either leave the world or stay in the world. You realize that it does not matter.

Question: What is the difference between the Mahayana practitioner and the Hinayana practitioner? Is the difference in their concepts, in their mentality or in their method of practice?

Shifu: The difference between the Hinayana and the Mahayana practitioner is not in their methods of practice or concepts. The difference is in their karmic affinity: which vehicle for the Dharma is needed by each person.